The three-decade-plus romance between author/screenwriter Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy becomes, in Chris & Don: A Love Story, the most gracious, graceful, and inspiring love story in God knows how many years. Directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi tell their tale using interviews with a still-spry Bachardy, chats with contemporaries such as Leslie Caron (still luminously wowza after all these years), plentiful archival footage, and Katrina and Kristina Swanger's crazy-cute animations of Isherwood as a sad old horse and Bachardy as a playful kitten. (The couple used similar images to sign their love letters.)
Isherwood as first etched here is a spiritually restless Cambridge grad drawn to the liberating debauchery of Weimar Berlin, which he captures in his 1945 classic, The Berlin Stories--which begetsCabaret, and so made all our lives a better place for all time. Isherwood makes it in Tinseltown as a screen scribe but yearns for a life partner until, in 1953, he meets Don, an alarmingly boyish 18-year-old beach bum/movie fan 30 years Isherwood's junior.
May/December reservations quickly dissolve as their love story of seemingly fated, mutually enriching symmetries unfolds. Isherwood's father was killed in World War I; Bachardy allows Isherwood to perform the fathering he never received, while giving Bachardy the love denied by his biological father. When young Bachardy understandably freaks after being introduced to Isherwood's rarified milieu--filled with the likes of W.H. Auden, Raymond Chandler, Montgomery Clift, and Igor Stravinsky--Isherwood responds by underwriting Bachardy's ambition to be a painter, which eventually renders the younger man his mentor's artistic equal.
Not everything is hugs and puppies. There's, you know, the entire world having issues with an out couple in the mid-20th century. Joseph Cotten, for example, comes off as a major kill-joy douche. Surprisingly accepting, though, is man's man John Ford, who invites the couple out to the shooting of one of his westerns. (Hollywood history geeks will have a serious cow at all the amazing candid footage of Burt Lancaster, Anna Magnani, and more.)
One thing the couple's love can't help is the mental illness that nearly destroys Bachardy's brother Ken. Once Bachardy's prettiness peer, Ken appears after years of electro-shock "treatment" as a lost, distracted soul still in love with the movies. A salving scene has the two appraising some Josh Hartnett photos before catching a matinée.
Of course, it ends in tears--Isherwood died of prostate cancer in 1986--but not before the movie closes with a final, literally death-defying act of art and love. If you're a couple, see Chris & Don to learn how to stay that way. If you're single, watch it and hope you're so lucky.